The sun rises like a cheesecloth-cloaked fireball over the misty hickory-and-pine forest surrounding Blackberry Farm in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. By late morning, this characteristic fog will burn off, leaving the 4,200-acre sheep dairy and guest retreat, with its creamery and two acclaimed restaurants, swathed in sultry humidity and the trill of cicadas.
While it didn’t start out that way, cheese has come to embody the vitality of this unique farm. It represents not only the fertile land but also what can be achieved when inspired individuals come together to pursue a common goal—what resident chef de cuisine Adam Cooke, at The Barn restaurant, calls “a shared desire to work, cook, craft, and be around food.” Cooke, along with chef de cuisine Joseph Lenn and corporate chef Josh Feathers, his colleagues at Blackberry’s other restaurant, the Main House, work closely with cheesemaker Adam Spannaus to create a refined version of Great Smoky Mountains cuisine, which is dictated by the seasonal variations in their sheep’s milk production. In addition to the chefs and Spannaus—himself a former chef—the food and farm team consists of sommeliers, a master gardener, shepherds, a forager, a preservationist, a beekeeper, a butcher, and a bread baker. As an ensemble, they collaborate to showcase Blackberry’s sustainably raised products, including milk, meat, tree crops, heirloom vegetables, and honey.
While the farm’s five different cheeses and sheep’s milk are excellent in their own right, the chefs have made them a fundamental part of Blackberry’s cuisine. Breakfast and lunch at the Main House mean homey treats such as panna cotta with fresh peaches, cornmeal pudding with maple cream cheese, charcoal-grilled lamb on piadina (Italian flatbread) with cucumber yogurt, and shaved summer vegetables topped with clumps of fresh, buttery cheese curds. The Barn, housed in a lofty, spectacularly restored 1700s farm structure, opened in 2007 with the now 29-year-old Cooke at the helm. Like Spannaus, he excels at transforming raw ingredients into a superlative end product, one that the national press has hailed for its melding of simple, rustic, local ingredients with classical technique.
Chef de cuisine Adam Cooke in the kitchen
Cooke is no stranger to dairy animals either. The son of self-described “hippies,” he grew up on a small farm in the Bitterroot Mountains of western Montana, raising chickens, milking cows, and making cheese and yogurt. Initially self-taught, he decided to pursue a formal education at the New England Culinary Institute when he was 22. He arrived at Blackberry in 2005, working under former executive chef John Fleer.
Cooke says he finds inspiration in the region’s little-known culinary heritage and use of foraged foods. “It’s a lesser-known facet of Southern cuisine,” he explains. “The food is very vegetable based, while meat (often in cured form) is more of a garnish.” His interpretation combines the flavors of perfectly ripe fruit, the crisp snap of just-harvested produce, the smoky perfume of a neighbor’s country ham, or the tang of vegetable pickles put up by food preservationist Maggie Davidson. At Blackberry, his philosophy is simple: try to use what exists on the farm. Cheese and milk are key components of his daily menus. “Sheep’s milk isn’t assertive, and it elevates the other ingredients and lets them shine. . . . Our menus grow out of what’s in season and the different stages of the sheep’s lactation. I love the milk in risotto, yogurt-based chilled soups, salad dressings, or semifreddo.” In early spring, Cooke continues, “I might do a sheep’s milk gnocchi with the fresh curds, while later in the summer or early fall, I’ll use the harder cheeses in things like an oven-roasted tomato tart with escargot.”
The farm was started in 1940 by the Lasier family, but it was not until 1976, when restaurateurs Kreis and Sandy Beall bought Blackberry, that the place became a small country inn. Their son Sam, now 33, was born in the main house, which is now the restaurant of the same name.
Since 2001, Sam Beall has been the proprietor of Blackberry, as well as the innovator behind its wine and culinary education programs, which feature world-renowned chefs and winemakers. But he is quick to point out that his entire staff makes the farm a special destination. The cheesemaking, he adds, is an expression of the place: “We want our guests to experience the connection of seeing the sheep, helping with milking and cheesemaking, and then eating it—all in the same day.” Beall says Blackberry’s cheese program is so popular that they now offer several programs for guests (as well as for the general public) in the cooking school located within The Barn. Cooke does classes on cheese-driven seasonal menus, while Spannaus teaches a Cheesemaker 101 class and conducts farm and creamery tours, cave tours, and cheese tastings. He also directs the “A Day in the Life of a Cheesemaker” program, in which visitors can milk sheep and assist him as he works.
Soft-spoken and methodical, the bespectacled cheesemaker has an impressive culinary résumé that includes a post as sous chef at Manhattan’s Aureole, as well as at the late 71 Clinton. He began working in kitchens while obtaining a music degree but fell in love with food, which led him to pursue a second degree at the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago. Though he sourced cheese for his sous chef positions, Spannaus’s only formal cheesemaking experience was at Cato Corner, a Connecticut cow dairy where he worked in between gigs as a weekend private chef. He also worked briefly at Brooklyn’s well-regarded Bedford Cheese Shop. What led him away from the high-stress, fast-paced, 80-hour weeks in the kitchen was a desire to “slow down, focus on technique, and create a consistently excellent product.”
Cheesemaker Adam Spannaus tests his aged sheep’s milk cheese
That desire appears to be coming to fruition. Just this past summer, Spannaus’s signature cheese, Blackberry Farm’s Singing Brook—an unpasteurized, boule-shaped pecorino—won third place in the aged sheep’s milk category at the American Cheese Society’s Annual Conference and Competition. The accolade is especially remarkable given that Spannaus has only been at Blackberry since January 2009, and that this is his first time as a solo cheesemaker. “Adam is brilliant,” says Cooke. “Since he took over, the cheese program has grown by leaps and bounds. I think what he does here will be heavily influential on the regional cuisine.”
One can easily imagine Spannaus saying the same thing about Cooke’s work. Given their combined talents and the resources at the farm, it’s no surprise that Blackberry has garnered a reputation far beyond its Great Smoky Mountain borders. As Beall proudly says of his team, “It’s so much better to invest [your energies] in good, honest, passionate people. Give them the tools to do their jobs, and let them run with it.”
Photographed by Heather Anne Thomas